Notes on
Global Brain by Howard Bloom
In response to forecasts that ubiquitous globally networked computers will evolve into a "global brain" Bloom tell us that a worldwide neo-cortex has existed already for three billion years. In this book he tells us its story.
The purpose of these notes.
Biology, evolution and the Global Brain.
4.55 billion b.c, to 1 billion b.c.: From the big bang to the microbial global brain.
720 million b.c. to 65 million b.c.: As soon as you get a nervous system with a brain you have memory and organisms evolve to pick up behaviour from their peers.
Complex adaptive systems in Jurassic days.
The purpose of these notes.

My present purpose in making these notes, is to gather the evidence which has lead me to my understanding (such as it is) of certain aspects of human nature which bear directly on the rationality of people and of social institutions.

Why would I imagine that such evidence might be found in this book? Because at I time when I was particularly perplexed by the irrationality of professional philosophers, the reading of this book provided me with material which "made sense" for me of this phenomenon.

Since then I have struggled for many years to find either a philosophical response to this situation. Either some approach to philosophy which might mitigate "the problem" as I perceived it, or a way of doing worthwhile philosophy despite it.

I have never been sympathetic to Bloom's central thesis, at least to the extent that he sees himself as showing that the kind of "Global Brain" which modern thinkers have imagined to be about to emerge or be constructed has already existed for more than 3 billion years. Which is not to deny the phenomena he describes, or even that one might reasonably describe them as a networked global brain.

I do think his major sub-themes, which I take to be about group selection and the pervasiveness of social behaviour are of importance in their consequences for rationality.

Apart from my struggle's with "philosophy" and have found that in my normal cogitations about life, in which the attempt to understand the people I encounter play a substantial role, I have used ideas which originated in my reading of this book, and that these ideas have continued to develop over the years since I first read it. So I think my present conception of these phenomena goes beyond what may be found in Bloom, but can only be explained by reference to this book and the evidence it cites. For the purpose of describing these ideas I need a fuller exhumation of the relevant content of this book.

However, I am also interested in the credibility of the book as a whole, and therefore I probably won't be ignoring the headline theses, since these are the ones where Howard exposes his tendency to hyperbole or outright fantasy which must factor in our assessment of the credibility of the case for even the more moderate material.

Comparative Analysis

My most recent ideas about Nomologico-Deductive methods now incline me to a less dogmatic stance in relation to Bloom's principle thesis. My negative reaction is principally a reaction against Bloom's critique of other Global Brain speculators. His critique is essentially that what the forcast has already happened. Rather than deny that what they speak of has happened, it now seems to me better to engage in analysis, to recognise multiple conceptions of "Global Brain" and to try to approach a comparative analysis.

Biology, evolution and the Global Brain.

This prologue is, like the rest of the book, dense with material and tightly argued, so its not easy to condense.

The first paragraph tells us about the idea of the Global Brain, recently provoked by the advent of global computer networks.

The second tells us that this recently conceived system will be just the most recent phase in the evolution of a global brain 3 billion years old. This was pulled together by "sociality". Howard is going to tell us how this came to be and how it all hangs together.

Individual versus Group Selection

This is a major sub-theme. The Prologue, perhaps even the book, hangs around it.

"Individual Selection"

"A gene sufficiently greedy to guarantee that many copies of itself get into the next generation will rapidly expand its family tree. Genes which program for self-denial and give up what they have to help out strangers may fail to breed entirely."
"Group Selection"
"individuals will sacrifice their genetic legacy to help a larger collectivity"

The controversy is really about group selection, since its proponents don't seem to deny "individual" selection (which may possibly be the same as "gene" selection). Since we don't have clear definitions its not obvious that the antagonists are not talking past each other.

Anyway the debate is not so important as the materials which Bloom marshals in support of "group selection", which is important whether or not it makes that particular case.

First we hear about the disastrous effects of failure or social exclusion (which seem similar), together with an argument (not wholly convincing) that this cannot be accounted for by individual selection. Then we discover that behind the superficial symptoms lies the degradation of the immune system. This leads us to apoptosis the phenomenon of self-destruction by cells which are not needed.

1. Creative Nets in the Pre-Cambrian Era
4.55 billion b.c, to 1 billion b.c.: From the big bang to the microbial global brain.
The Big Bang
Current received opinion about the first few instants in the universe are presented here as if they were unassailably established fact. Since I find it all totally unbelievable, it doesn't do much for the credibility of the book as a whole. At the level of subatomic particles Bloom is drawing analogies with social behaviour, which served mainly to make me wonder to what extent the rest of his material depends on such weak analogies.
The Life of Bacteria
There is some interesting and I feel quite plausible information about various kinds of bacteria and how they work which illustrates in these earliest and most primitive life forms features which (we later learn) recur pervasively throughout evolution, notably:
  • division of labour
  • social behaviour
    • "making bodily contact with as many other bacteria as possible is more important to an individual [myxobacterium] than sidling up to a food source"
    • much of the genetically determined behaviour is oblivious to the survival of the individual and totally oriented to the survival of the group, particularly that which occurs when times are hard and new resources must be located
    • form of progeny varies according to conditions, eater/replicators when food is plenteous, explorers when it is scarce
    • recklessness with life when searching for food, explorers mostly sacrifice themselves and their chances of replication
    • chemical success/"come hither" and failure/"avoid" signals sent out by search parties
The Global Bacterial Brain

Mainly about bacteria and their social behaviour, building up from very plausible observations about how bacterial colonies work to a thesis about "the global bacterial brain" which seems rather harder to swallow and is not so convincingly documented or argued,

The theses are that global bacterial communities achieve:

  • "bacterial megalopoli" possessing a "staggeringly high IQ"
  • a global network for "trading" genetic data
  • "In a crisis, bacteria did not rely on deliverance via a random process like genetic mutation, but instead unleashed their genius as genetic engineers."
It is plausible that bacteria do not rely on mutation, as indeed we do not, for genetic variation, and plausible that such creatures can tolerate and exploit much higher levels of random variation. However, it is less plausible that they use methods which do not depend on natural selection of essentially random variation, and this seems to be what Bloom is asserting. I would like to have seen some account of the evidence for the assertion, which is lacking (though he provides references, to John Holland).

2. Networking in Paleontolog's 'Dark Ages'
3.5 billion b.c. to 520 million b.c.: Mostly about the evolution from prokaryotes to eukaryotes, and of sexual reproduction.
A single celled organism (bacterium, or cyanobacterium) lacking a distinct, membrane-bound nucleus or membrane-bound organelles, with DNA not organised into chromosomes.
A single-celled or multicellular organism whose cells contain a distinct membrane-bound nucleus.
Diminished Genetic Variability
The prokaryotes are relatively simple cells, and can evolve rapidly by diverse gene recombinations. It seems plausible that as the cells get more complicated, and the amount and complexity of the genetic material rises, the chances of radical recombinations resulting in working organisms diminish and more moderate variation becomes beneficial. This is achieved by packing up the genetic material into a nucleus protected by a membrane and having more elaborate mechanisms for reproducing the genetic material.
Some of the variation lost by looking after the genome more carefully is recovered by sexual reproduction, The first stage in the evolution of sexual reproduction seem to have been to go to the dual-helix of DNA and have a two stage process of reproduction. In the first stage the cell splits into two cells each of which has only one half of the genetic material, In the second stage each of these cells fuses with another similar cell yielding a new cell with a full complement of DNA each half of which will have been obtained from a different parent.
3. The Embryonic Meme
720 million b.c. to 65 million b.c.: As soon as you get a nervous system with a brain you have memory and organisms evolve to pick up behaviour from their peers.
Cambrian Crustaceans
Eukaryotes don't Trade Genes
The incarceration of genetic material in the nucleus of eukaryotes "ruled out the freewheeling trade and test drive of genetic scraps" possible for the prokaryotes, thus excluding them from Bloom's microbial global brain. The emergence of the meme is their way back into a global society.
The Emergence of Memes

From Bloom's story in this chapter I come away with the following conception of what you need to have before you can have "memes" (I don't promise that this is what Bloom actually said).

The reason why you get complex multicellular organisms is so that you can get specialised structures for doing the kinds of things you have to do. Ultimately it all comes down to reproduction, you have to propagate as many copies of yourself as possible. In order to do that you must eat, in order to survive long enough to replicate and to supply the wherewithal for reproduction, and you also have to avoid being eaten at least until you have made some replicas.

Multicellular organisms have specialised parts for reproduction, for eating, and for locomotion. The locomotion is needed to move you towards something worth eating and away from anything which might eat you. In order to know what locomoting to do you need some sense organs so that you can detect other life and determine whether it is an opportunity or a threat. Then you locomote toward or away from it as appropriate.

Having just these specialised parts does not quite suffice, there is a bit of communication and information processing required. Somehow the data collected by the senses must be communicated to the locomotor and somehow en route the determination "friend or foe" has to be made. Hence the first nervous systems and brains.

Naturally this involves memory. Once you have determined on a course of action, you don't want to forget it immediately. It would not be good to forget a threat or an opportunity just because it was momentarily obscured from view. Telling friend from foe is not necessarily easy, when you discover that a certain kind of creature is dangerous, or tasty, its best not to forget it.

Once this processing gets above a certain minimal level of sophistication you get memes. Just as soon as the organism is capable of noticing the behaviour of its peers there is advantage in copying them. This is advantageous partly because they may have seen something, threat or opportunity, which you have not yet noticed. It is also advantageous because they may know something you don't know, perhaps they already know that a certain colour marks a threat but you haven't yet had the displeasure of its acquaintance, So you see them avoiding it, and its to your advantage to do likewise without learning the hard way (which might cost you your life, or, more importantly your future opportunities to reproduce).

Without attaching much significance to the use of the word meme in this context, i.e. using it very loosely indeed, these are the conditions you need for memes to appear. Not much more than memory and communications. And at this very first moment in the history of ideas, we see the biological advantage of mimicry. We are far too dumb to think anything out, just do as is done by those in the community we grow up in.

Social Heirarchy

Another forward step in evolution appears among the crustaceans, the pecking order.

Social hierarchies seem to be ways of speeding up evolution by selective breeding. At this stage social status is determined by some kind of contest which tests the genetic virtues of the contestants, typically some test of strength. Those at the top of the resulting ladder get preference for feeding, housing and sexual partners (all of which contribute to maximising their breeding success).

The contest is partly mediated by chemical self selection. Some of the mechanisms which support the social order are chemical, success in contests results in elevated serotonin levels. which transform mental outlook and social performance. In the lobsters, modern descendents of the crustaceans, another drug, octopamine has the complementary role, boosted by failure and further depressing performance. It is the individuals own biochemistry which, arguably for the benefit of the group, causes him to self-deselect when he loses contests.

Bees and Honey

About half way through this period the insects appear. Bees and other insects exhibit highly structures communities in which mechanisms which remain important throughout evolution are first seen.

  • non-genetic differentiation of role and physiology (actually not mentioned here by Bloom, and in any case this is not new since the prokaryotes do it)
  • Scouts which locate food communicate their discoveries to the hive by the waggle-dance
  • Some experiments suggest that there may be some "intelligence" (over and above blind search) in finding food sources, (but the material presented here is not convincing on this point)
  • Searching for a new hive location follows a similar method

4. From Social Synapses to Social Ganglions: Complex Adaptive Systems in Jurassic Days
Complex adaptive systems in Jurassic days.
A collective learning machine achieves its feats by using five elements:
  1. conformity enforcers
  2. diversity generators
  3. inner judges
  4. resource shifters
  5. inter group tournaments

The main body of evidence cited here in support of Bloom's model of learning is from Ben-Jacob and his collaborators. This is unfortunate in my opinion because I find this work unconvincing and it is much less credible than the ideas which Bloom is seeking to support. (Warning signs include references to Gödel's theorem, and the claim that the bacterial genome exceeds the capabilities of universal Turing machines, both of which are supported by a few sentences too vague to challenge.)

There are not only here but elsewhere in the book many extravagant claims about the capability of bacteria en masse, which my reference to Ben-Jacob's material makes me regard with suspicion. I don't doubt that the prokaryotes could do all kinds of odd (and impressive) things with genetic material, but it is for me an open question what these things are.

Though this difficulty seems to me not crucial for the aspects of this book which are of interest to me, they are more significant for Bloom's headline topic, for the idea that the viruses and bacteria formed a global brain seems essential to Bloom's central thesis. Bloom admits that the eukaryotes don't achieve this until "meme"s get in on the act, so without support for the claims for viruses and prokaryotes the thesis reduces to a claim about cultural evolution.

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